The Lowdown on Meat Substitutes
Plant-based is usually a good thing, right? That depends... Just because you opt for a product that seems healthy, doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you. A food may have a label that appears earth-friendly, but could also be processed and laced with chemical additives. Sure, it’s important to have balance in your diet. And that means getting your recommended daily supply of protein, which varies according to age and weight. So reaching for a meat substitute might seem like a smart move. However, if you don't dig deeper into what's inside the various meat alternatives, you might inadvertently be doing your body more harm than good.
To help you sift through your options, we enlisted the wisdom of Functional Nutritionist, Shelly Gawith.
New on the scene, with more of a shredded consistency, Gawith likes jackfruit for vegan cooking because it absorbs flavors well, so when it comes to recipes, the sky's the limit. However, Gawith cautions that it's still a fruit, and a carbohydrate, so opt for small servings; also, while it’s touted as a high protein food, Gawith says it’s the seeds that contain protein, and not the actual fruit. Some popular ways to prepare jackfruit are in tacos and as a pulled pork substitute because of its stringy texture. For more ideas, check out BBQ Jackfruit Sandwiches from the Minimalist Baker.
Ironically, its name sounds rather devilish but that has nothing to do with the fact that seitan consists of vital wheat gluten, AKA the anti-food. So of course, if you have gluten sensitivity, you'll want to avoid this one.
Although, Gawith says, “if gluten isn't an issue, there are a lot of positives, such as its high protein content and it is not made from soy.” But Gawith adds that seitan may contain soy sauce. This longtime meat substitute is highly versatile, and used to whip up everything from veggie burgers to stir fry, even meatloaf. It’s so flavorful, you'll often find it on the menu in upscale vegetarian restaurants. If you’re so inclined you can even make your own seitan from scratch, which is surprisingly easy.
More mysterious than soy and not nearly as well known. This perplexing ingredient appears on the labels of certain plant-based brands, and may take the form of chicken-like patties, nuggets, veggie burgers or the like. But is this healthy? According to Gawith, it's not. Why? “Mycoprotein is made from processed mold. For anyone that has been exposed to mold, this is going to cause an inflammatory reaction in their bodies,” says Gawith. For this reason, Gawith cautions her clients to avoid it, especially since “reactions for some people can be very serious.”
*A note about soy: There’s ongoing debate whether soy products are truly healthy. Soy products may contain large quantities of pesticides. So always look for organic non-GMO soy foods. More to keep in mind, when consuming soy, “The problem with most soy based substitutes are the extra additives that go into the food. Also for women we don't want to be eating a huge amount of soy products as it disrupts our hormones and thyroid function,” says Gawith.
Processed soy milk made into a solid, Tofu is a virtual flavor chameleon. Due to its flexibility, it can be transformed into a rainbow of dishes. But it’s not perfect. Keep in mind, “There's often a thickening agent added so it can be considered more processed than tempeh,” says Gawith.
When buying tempeh, you’ll want to scrutinize the label. Usually, it contains, “fermented soy, quinoa, barley millet, flaxseed, brown rice, sesame seeds and spices,”says Gawith, adding that because it normally has a potpourri of other ingredients, “it can be both gluten free and contain gluten.” Is it healthy? Well... it can go either way, since that also depends on what’s been added.
Tempeh positives: “often it has a higher protein component than tofu due to the other ingredients. Due to the fermentation process of tempeh it can be considered healthier,” according to Gawith.
While any of the above ingredients may be contained in store bought veggie burgers, you still have more choices. One of the simplest and healthiest types of burger substitutes are, “veggie patties pre-made, from veggies, beans, quinoa, lentils, pea protein,” according to Gawith.
Want to save yourself a trip to the market and be assured of quality? Mushrooms, black beans, and lentils, all work great as hearty DIY meat substitutes. Something as simple as a thick slice of portobello, grilled, with onions and peppers, makes a savory homemade veggie burger. And for another satisfying quick fix, with a bit more flair, use falafel mix as a base; add diced zucchini, carrots, and yellow bell peppers. Shape into patties and pay fry with olive oil. Substitute your favorite veggies & spices. Top with greens, tomatoes, and tzatziki sauce. Enjoy!